Tips for teaching dance to 3- to 6-year-olds

Creative dance means creative teaching, too. Though leading a class of 3-year-olds may sound like fun and games to the uninitiated, there’s a serious side to early childhood dance education. Each activity has a purpose: to develop cognitive, social and physical abilities. There are also specific teaching strategies for working with this age group. “It’s important to understand how children think,” says Rima Faber, who developed The Primary Movers, a curriculum for early childhood. “They don’t think abstractly the way adults do. Children have to experience, to know what it feels like. They don’t understand if you’re telling them to feel this muscle or that one. You have to provide images that they have experienced.” For example, she says, “In second-position plié, I tell them, ‘You’re like a park bench.’ They already know a park bench is wide and open, so you give them that picture, then they can internalize it.”

Dance Teacher asked Faber and four other early childhood dance specialists to share their favorite tools and advice for success with pre-K children—an age group that is increasingly regarded as key for the growth of any dance studio.

Beverly Spell introduces games to help children develop their relationship to others.

Beverly F. Spell

Leap ’N Learn

Milton, Louisiana

Creative movement is not just running around with a scarf. It develops the brain and teaches kids to think, but you have to give them tools to help them be successful with it. With a new group of 3-year-olds, one of the things you have to do is let them know what they need to do, rather than telling them what not to do.

We introduce a lot of different types of activities, and the games that we play help develop the relationship to others. I might show them a picture of a frozen pond and tell them that we’re going to go skating. I’ll ask them, “If it’s frozen, what’s the temperature like? How would I know when I look at you that you’re cold?”

Then I’ll put them in pairs and have them work together in a team. I’ll call out what their relationship to the other person will be. So if I call out “side by side,” then you’re going to stay side by side and work out with your partner how to do that. Do you hold hands or not hold hands? And at the end, I always have them thank their partner for dancing with them.

I look at creative movement as child-directed creation of movement. If you just say to a child, “Create a movement,” but you don’t give them tools, they’ll just stand there. You have to give them tools, different types of information. Then they can create their movement.

Rachael Carnes

Sparkplug Dance Educational Resources

Eugene, Oregon

I try to bring into the classroom environment a sense of joy and wonder, even after all these years. Although I’ve maybe pretended to be a balloon 5 million times, for my little students, it’s new—and their curiosity and excitement deserve space to grow. The biggest mistake teachers make with this age group is talking too much. Learn to say what you need to say in few words, with great enthusiasm, and you’ll do better with this crowd. Overexplaining, being unclear or muddled are great moments for kids to tune out, and you’ve lost them. 

When I was first starting out, I really had to learn to teach to the positive, engaging and rewarding the behaviors you want to see. It’s hard for new teachers to see that by paying attention to the child who’s not participating, you throw everyone else off balance. Over the years, I’ve just learned to keep dancing, and sure enough, pretty soon everyone is right with me, having a great time. 

Rima Faber

National Dance Education Organization Emerita

Joy of Motion Dance Center

Washington, DC

One of the activities children adore is what I call the “box dance.” I bring a big box to class and have one of the students start inside it. I’ve told them a kind of animal to be, and they come out as that animal and dance, and then go back into the box. Then the rest of class tries to guess what animal it is. You have to give us a quality of movement—if you’re a bunny rabbit, you’re not going to be slow like a turtle, so it also teaches them about what qualities they need.

For the 3-year-olds, it’s teaching beginning, middle and end—they come out of the box, move and go back into the box. The 4-year-olds will come out and dance a story, so we’re developing the idea of narrative. For the 5-year-olds, something will happen to put them back in the box—they might see something scary that chases them back into the box. By the time they’re 6 years old, they’re more developed in their thoughts or feelings, so we look at what happens when something chases them. They will react, express fear, fight with it, try to be brave, so they are expressing their relationship with the external.

Through this exercise, we’re teaching so many things at the same time. We’re teaching the structure of choreography and teaching them to perform. We’re teaching the class to be an audience and helping with their cognitive development. And we’re working on communication, whether through the movement or with the class afterward.

The children are reaching high to pick berries.

Candy Beers

Village Dance Studios

Richmond, Virginia

What I do with the kids changes with each group. I believe that you have to get a feel for what each group’s favorite activity is, what’s interesting and inviting for them.

I do a lot of activities that help with spatial awareness using the kinesphere bubble. I have them imagine their favorite color and, with that color, reach as high as they can and then go down low, side to side, so they are “painting” their kinesphere bubble with their hands and with their feet. They start to get the idea that the kinesphere is space around them.

Then we might have a “bubble dance,” where we move, but try not to pop each other’s bubbles, so they start to become aware of how close they can get to each other. I scatter colored yoga mats on the floor, and I’ll put on a piece of music and say, “Raise your hand if you have an idea of what to do on the green yoga mat.” They can do that step, then we pick other things to do on the other colored mats, and when they get to that color mat, they have to do that movement. It helps them practice memorizing movement.

Anne Green Gilbert

Creative Dance Center

Seattle, Washington

Dancers this age learn best through their visual sense, so I dance with them, then step back to watch and make “Try...” and “I see...” comments. I am always positive and call out students’ names frequently during class with a comment such as, “I see Joan moving on a low level”; “I see Elliott dancing backwards”; “Kyung is listening to my directions.”

Children can start crying because their parents left them or they fall down or the moon is full! I keep the class going (or toss an engaging prop on the floor with a quick instruction) as I run for an ice pack or give the child a hug and tell them dancing will always make them feel better or hold their hand and keep moving. If the parent is waiting outside, I may hand the child off to the parent. What I do not do is stop the class and give the crier a lot of attention, because then everyone will start to cry.

A child might refuse to dance. If they sit quietly, I go on with class and once or twice invite them to join. After class I will ask the parent in a diplomatic way if the child really wants to be in dance class, if the child is engaged in too many activities, etc. I always welcome the child back because maybe the moon was full that day—and everyone has a bad day!

Photos from top: by Jason Cohen, courtesy of Leap ’N Learn; by Joy Taubner, courtesy of Rachael Carnes; courtesy of Rima Faber; by Sandra Culp Marr, courtesy of Candy Beers; by Bronwen Houck, courtesy of Anne Green Gilbert